Artistry of the Subalterns: Homosexuality and the Poetry Small Press

Jeremy Brunger I LGBTQ Rights I Analysis I April 10th, 2015

"The word of man," wrote the 19th century enlightened pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, "is the most durable of all materials." The language of the thoughtful animal would outlive any of its physical constructions, as the histories of empire, in their rises and their falls, would astutely attest; lotteries of birth could bestow their gifts as swiftly as they took them away. Schopenhauer's philosophical ephebe, Friedrich Nietzsche, thought that art, like the word, was the highest form of expression available to the human species. Though he placed a great value on music for its insistence on universality without the philological distinction between nationalities, he considered poetry just as fine an avenue into the Absolute. For Nietzsche, all poetry was philosophical and all philosophy poetic. And what of poetry today? Has it "died," how the God of Nietzsche's century did, or has it merely hidden itself behind academic veneers and the auspices of the gray market? It turns out it has survived in better form than the Christianity Nietzsche so harshly criticized, for its audience is increasing. Poetry was once the sole province of the privileged, the gentlemen of leisure who lived easily because so many others worked for the national profit. But since the 1980s the poetry "small press" has exploded in content, composed equally of literary journals and publishing houses of full-length books. What was once the bourgeois luxury of ownership, now that everyone must work for another, is the exquisite forum of the dispossessed. From the voices of black feminism to liberal Buddhism, poetry has given a place in the public sphere to lines of thought and expression that no other medium would have heretofore accepted, due either to lack of profitability or to the bitter spoils of identity politics. Contrary to what certain writers have thought since the 20th century, the art of poetry-the monolith of critical theory Theodor Adorno thought poetry impossible after the death-camps of Auschwitz-is once again an art form as beautiful as it is viable. It is viable because the personal is always already political. Whereas misfit subalterns were once immersed in the miserably contemplative quietude of social death, they are now transforming their experiences of oppression into the delight of public art. The keenest aspect of this cultural resistance is the small press poetry of the homosexuals: the citizens whose civil rights alone in the West remain as yet unchampioned.


In the ancient world, poetry was not so much an art as it was a method of science. The scientists of antiquity wrote their treatises on the natural world in the poetic form, from the Greek Aristotle to the Roman Lucretius: to peer into mystery was to write it audaciously. The Nicomachean Ethics, a series of lectures Aristotle intended for his own son's education, reads as beautifully as The Nature of the Universe, Lucretius' atomic description of material reality. The pedagogical was, then as it should be now, as beautiful as the natural world itself. In the early modern era art took upon itself the burden of human significance because of the sheer burden it had exerted upon human labor throughout the centuries; certain wealthy patrons, who had gained their wealth through fraud, robbery, and mass murder, had in turn supported the very people who had expressed through the humanist principles of art their foremost antitheses. The art of the humanists became a testament that, in a world rent by perpetual disaster, humanity could deliver itself from its own worst tendencies.

As it was then, so it is now. Art is once again the balm of a society divided against itself. The structural brutalities of racism remain powerful and hidden, where they are not all too apparent-just as brutal is the continued repression of the homosexuals in Western society. How James Baldwin wrote his novels in order to free the black human being from the tyranny of racial oppression (which he thought peculiarly strong in America), writers are continuing the cause of human emancipation through poetry. Sibling Rivalry Press, a non-profit small press of poetry head-quartered in Little Rock, Arkansas, publishes a wide variety of poetry from writers across the globe. Through its anthology Assaracus to its full-length books, Sibling Rivalry Press offers the public a series of voices heretofore ignored: they give voices to the voiceless, the queer artists of the 21st century. Their motto comes from Adrienne Rich, the poetess of politics: their raison d'etre is to "disturb and enrapture." From the margins of human experience they craft their works and give them to the world in a framework outside of any establishment like academia or the big presses. They are grass-roots-founded by the poet Bryan Borland in 2010, they depend completely for their funding on donations and book sales, ensuring that every writer on contract is paid royalties. Theirs is not a capitalist endeavor. They publish writing for art's sake, and through their l'art pour l'art, they give a little salvation to those most habituated to a socially-enforced silence. If the social theorist Louis Althusser was correct in his assertion that human beings are drawn to the ideological spheres of media that most correspond to their psyches, then the small press of poetry, where Byronic art and Foucauldian grief collide, ought to prove the haven it is for the homosexual artist.

Writers like Borland, himself a prolific poet, publish alongside the known and unknown alike. Michael Klein, a faculty member of Goddard College, publishes alongside Philip Clark, a poet new to the forum; Gavin Dillard, a poet relatively well known for his collaboration with Dolly Parton et al., publishes alongside people who, prior to their engagement with Sibling Rivalry Press, never would have thought they could find themselves a home on the printed page. Antonio Gramsci, the theorist of Marxism imprisoned under Mussolini's fascist regime, wrote that "all art is vision objectified." In their production of art, the artists reflect their society in order to alter it-in order to envision its dialectical inversion into a better world. For Gramsci, art alone was a religion worth preserving, unlike all the others. The sort of world gay men live in is one rife with social oppression, a surprising level of poverty, legal discrimination, alienation, dispossession, and ultimately, death. From the cultural hedonism of the 1970s to the conservatism of the 1990s, when the AIDS crisis came to be better understood, the homosexual in society has always been a fringe member of it if he was a member of it all: a vision well objectified.

The habitual silence of the subaltern, like the proletarian or the racial minority, can come to seem like a death sentence all its own, a grim resignation to the caprice of normative life and its punishments for deviation. What more worthwhile than a poetry that opposes society at large, that makes even the most normal thing imaginable seem grotesque, somehow blighted; what more useful than the subalterns writing back at a world whose mainstream despises them? At once a form of non-violent resistance in the manner of Gandhi and Dr. King and a form of cultural appropriation-for poetry is historically the domain of the patriarch-the artistry of the subalterns proves that all human beings, even when oppressed, do indeed share a taste for the aesthetic realms of life which, throughout the bleakness of its fringes, resolves into the tenderer beauty of its humanist center. It sometimes seems as though literature is where crazy people go to die when the world offers no other choice. If the lessons of Sylvia Plath and the other victims of normative culture have proven anything, it is that literature is where people go to live when the world becomes too crazy.

"It is clear that every individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he does not agree with him, is a monster," wrote Voltaire in his Philosophical Dictionary. He might have continued that persecution, rather than producing monsters as a law of social relations, can instead produce beauty. One of the enduring themes in the poetry published by Sibling Rivalry Press is that of outcastry, of those denied entry into the normal social milieu who nevertheless create their own realities by dint of need and virtue of method. Family, like maturity, is also a key theme, from the building of new families by "impossible fathers" to the denial of the families into which the poets were born. One does not need Engels' Origins of the Family if one has poetry to describe that alienation and the return from it which art delivers. The structure of familial oppression may well be dismantled by the structure of the couplet.

Where there is gloom in the poetry there is also joy: for another of the themes of Sibling Rivalry is the affirmation that, whether the world is hostile, its people need not be. Formal verse mingles with verse libre, images of one-night stands intersect with images of family barbecues, images of weddings with the AIDS memorial quilt. Love and politics pervade the artwork, for the love is angry, and the politics are geared toward human solidarity. The poetry is full of "zones of liberated intensities where contents free themselves from their forms as well as their expressions," how Deleuze and Guattari described Kafka's literature in their Toward a Minor Literature, for every gay man is a Kafka. Enduring not one but two adolescences, speaking not one language but several for each situation, he renders every city Prague and every defamiliarized literature revolutionary. Like Kafka with his dualism, and the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa with his heteronyms, the subaltern poet straddles the gulf between respectability and its absurd counterpart of infamy. Where the beauty lies is in their resolution. Sibling Rivalry Press accomplishes this resolution with every book they give to the public; and the public ought respond with their patronage.